The black retriever Max is flopped over our feet as we jostle up a dusty, steep, serpentine road in a mini-tractor. (Note to self: White skirt is a bad idea.) We grind to a halt in front of a shed in the dry hills. “Welcome to my winery,” grins our driver, Paul Gardner.
Gardner co-owns the small Pentage Winery just south of Penticton in British Columbia’s central Okanagan Valley.
Inside, he sucks up Chardonnay from a steel tank with a big syringe and squirts it into glasses for us to taste. He then proudly shows us one of the thick plastic bags he uses to sell four-bottle quantities of his white vintages.
Wine in a bag?
“The bag prevents the wine from oxidizing after it’s opened,” Gardner explains. “It’s great for people who know the wine and don’t care about its presentation in a fancy bottle.”
We’re not talking plonk here.
“If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on any Pentage wine, grab it,” sommelier Mark Filatow of Kelowna’s Waterfront Wines Restaurant & WineBar had earlier urged me.
Up the road at La Frenz Winery, we learn that its Chardonnay and Merlot were chosen for Queen Elizabeth’s gala dinner during her 2005 royal visit to Canada.
Indeed, the whole region has blossomed since Mission Hill Family Estate’s Chardonnay won “Best Chardonnay Worldwide” in a blind taste test at the prestigious International Wine and Spirits Competition in London in 1994.
Some 120 wineries, many corking stellar wines, have taken root in the Okanagan Valley – dubbed “Napa North” in reference to California’s famous vineyard region.
We’re amazed at all the changes, even in the few years since we last visited.
There was always the 60-mile-long swimming and boating lake, Lake Okanagan, running down the middle of the valley. And the many golf courses.
But food is now a major attraction for visitors, too. New vineyard restaurants, charming alfresco garden dinners and smart urban bistros complement the abundant wineries – and make tippling and grazing in the valley (our mission on this visit) a glorious gastronomic getaway.
We start in the Kelowna area, bedding down at the new Cove Lakeside Resort. It’s conveniently close to Mission Hill, undoubtedly Canada’s showcase winery.
The whole palatial estate is eye-popping – from the rose gardens leading to the winery’s massive arch entrance and 12-story bell tower, to the underground cellars and museum-style reception room with a Marc Chagall tapestry.
Mission Hill’s outdoor terrace restaurant was also just voted one of the top five winery restaurants in the world by Travel + Leisure magazine. The only problem with lunching here is that it’s difficult to quit ogling the panoramic vineyard and lake views long enough to focus on ordering.
Should it be grilled bison with a sweet onion and rocket salad, or ruby trout with chorizo tart?
Also nearby is the Quails’ Gate Estate Winery. Until last year, tastings were held in a tiny pioneer cabin amid the flower gardens. Today you swish and spit in a brand new 3,500-square-foot, state-of-the-art tasting room and wine shop, complete with self-rinsing stainless steel spittoons built into a granite bar.
The newly renovated Old Vines Patio restaurant is open year-round for dinner (try the grilled Caesar salad with local wild boar pancetta and crisped quail).
Summerhill Pyramid Winery is the most unique of the dozen wineries around Kelowna. Its wines are cellared in a giant white pyramid that’s an exact replica of Egypt’s Great Pyramid.
We’re led inside the inner chamber, lit only by candles, where we’re told that invisible energy created by the pyramid’s structure enhances the quality of the wines. I don’t know about that, but I can vouch for its lakeview Sunset Bistro, where young chef Jesse Croy whips up masterful creations.
Another must-do for dinner in Kelowna is Bouchons. This classic little French bistro has been wowing customers since it opened four years ago.
We start with a silky-smooth chicken pate, served with ceramic pots of gherkins and grainy mustard, followed by a Belgian endive salad rich with walnuts and blue cheese.
But the crowning achievement is Bouchons’ succulent honey-and-spice glazed duck confit, served with perfect pomme frites in a paper cone.
After three days, we drive one hour south to explore Naramata. A bucolic strip of countryside hugging Lake Okanagan, the 10-mile Naramata Bench is sprinkled with 22 small estate wineries.
We’re booked into Apple d’Or, which opened last year. A huge log country home, it has three exquisite suites with Persian rugs, fireplaces and galley kitchens.
Stepping out through the French doors of our living room onto our private stone terrace, I’m momentarily disoriented. The lake views tell me I’m here in the Okanagan, but the tinkling wall fountain and rose vines transport me to Tuscany.
It’s while in Naramata that we visit Paul Gardner and Pentage Winery. After buying a case (his wine-in-a-bag has sold out), we head to the God’s Mountain Estate guesthouse for an alfresco vineyard dinner (hence my ill-fated white skirt).
“A glass of Blue Mountain Brut?” offers Cameron Smith of Joy Road Catering, holding out a silver tray with flutes of freshly poured bubbly, as we arrive.
Now into their second season, he and wife Dana cook and serve a four-course dinner, paired with local wines, outside in the garden every Sunday evening until the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival.
Dana soon rings a small dinner bell, and the 17 guests that have booked tonight gather at a communal table under the trees.
As the conversation moves from cycling in the Okanagan to favorite wines, we munch on homemade artisanal bread and antipasto to start, then slurp chilled English pea soup with minted crème fraîche.
Platters of duck confit, just-yanked nugget potatoes, baby carrots and organic arugula salad are passed around, and local wines flow freely. When dusk darkens the sky and candles are lit, Dana presents a delicious vanilla bean and goat cheese mousse with berries.
It’s an enchanting evening, and we can’t imagine how we can possibly eat and drink any more. But we still have two more fine meals ahead of us.
The outdoor Patio restaurant at Lakebreeze Vineyards is another delightful garden spot that lures us in to enjoy a glass of the winery’s Pinot Gris while we lunch on warm scallop salad.
And Amante Bistro (new since last year) is perhaps the best dinner restaurant right in the town of Penticton – a nice little, reasonably priced place (with to-die-for crème brulee).
No doubt about it. You don’t need to fly to France or Italy to eat and drink well.
The central Okanagan is within driving distance. It’s ripened into a bountiful food and wine lover’s retreat – and it tosses in a big dollop of beautiful scenery for good measure too.